The set-up: Move over, Sondheim, there's a new kid on the block. Name's Porter, Cole Porter. He writes lyrics that'll make your head spin. And fresh tunes with catchy rhythmic hooks to them. Nothing standard about these songs.
Except, of course, that five of his songs from Anything Goes (1934), playing only through this weekend in a gleefully sunny production from Broadway at the Hobby, are indeed standards, classic examples of the Great American Songbook. Choose one, I dare you, as a favorite: "I Get a Kick Out of You;" "You're the Top;" "Easy to Love;" "Blow, Gabriel, Blow;" and "Anything Goes." Or maybe, you'd prefer one of the interpolated Porter songs that were added to the first off-Broadway revival (1962): "It's De-Lovely" (from Red Hot and Blue) or "Friendship" (from DuBarry Was a Lady). Winner's all.
The execution: This production is a revival of a revival. It's the 2011Tony-winning Roundabout Theatre production, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall, that, in turn, was based on the 1987 Broadway version with its new book by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman (the writers didn't actually rewrite, so much as focus the wayward plotlines, strengthen characters by rearranging the song list, and punch up the corny jokes). Come to think of it, the original 1934 musical was its own revival of sorts.
Written by P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, extremely successful creators of many English musicals, the original script meandered needlessly, so the producer asked the show's future director Howard Lindsay for a rewrite. Lindsay felt uncomfortable doing the job solo, so he called in his young theater buddy Russel Crouse to help out. Their writing partnership lasted thirty years, earning them the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1946 for State of the Union. The duo also wrote Life With Father, Call Me Madam, and The Sound of Music. Timothy Crouse, co-author of the 1987 "new" book, is the son of the original show's Russel Crouse.
Of all the musicals from the 1930s, Anything Goes continues to be revived. The show was a huge hit at the time - certainly Porter's biggest success until Kiss Me Kate (1948) - and its breezy, brassy outlook is unlike other '30s book show. It's certifiably American, no question about it. With its irreverent screwball rambunctiousness, pop cultural references, satire of celebrity worship, assortment of odd characters, and that patented gloss of Porter sophistication (in both music and words), the show may be a silly goof, but it's crafted with care and put across with irrepressible verve. And those songs are indelible.
Except for an intro that's set in a bar, the show takes place on a transatlantic ocean liner. As the musical was written as a vehicle for rising star Ethel Merman, her character Reno Sweeney is as bold as can be, a combo of famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and infamous Manhattan nightclub owner Texas Guinan (two bold personalities in that era of bold personalities). Reno (Emma Stratton) loves Billy (Brian Krinsky), but he loves heiress Hope (Rachelle Rose Clark) and stows away to follow her to England where she's to marry eccentric Lord Evelyn (Richard Lindenfelzer). On board we meet Moonface Martin (Dennis Setteducati), Public Enemy No. 13, a gangster on the lam with moll Erma (Mychal Phillips); Billy's soused boss Eli Whitney (Michael R. Douglass); Hope's dowager mother who wants Hope to marry rich (Tracy Bidleman); Reno's "Angels," her backup quartet Purity, Chastity, Charity, and Virtue (Gabriella Perez, Annie Wallace, Kaylee Olson, and Lexie Plath); two Chinese missionaries, Luke and John, who fleece the passengers (Roy Flores and Anthony Chan); and assorted sailors who act as catnip for Erma.
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Everyone handles their loony characters without going over the top. Not that there's much time for that, as director Marshall keeps this ship bracingly on course. If there were an impending iceberg, don't worry, this show would sail right over it. Marshall saves her best work for the dancing. There hasn't been a show in memory that revels in dance as this one. The tap numbers rival any from 42nd Street, one of the danciest shows in history. Everyone gets put through quite a workout. Better yet, the numbers are truly choreographed, not skimpy routines designed to camouflage a none-too-nimble principal. No one in this show has two left feet. There's a lovely "Fred and Ginger" knockoff for Billy and Hope's burgeoning romance, set to "It's De-Lovely," but the rowdy rap numbers stop the show, deservedly.
And what a find is Emma Stratton. Tall and lithe, she looks terrific in devil-red flapper dress (for the jazzy gospel "Blow, Gabriel, Blow), can tap, and sings great. No one on earth can replace diva Merman, but she never had to dance up a storm wrought by Marshall and then immediately sing another refrain. She's softer than Merman, but still takes the stage and holds it tight. Her Reno is strong, and sweet.
The production is bright and cheery, like a stack of Necco wafers. Designer David Bulard's ship isn't quite as luxurious a piece of Art Deco as it could be, but there are those richly glamorous clothes from late designer Martin Pakledinaz to dazzle the eye and remind us of Hollywood's glory days.
The verdict: This shipboard masquerade is the kind of Broadway musical they don't make anymore. How can you not like a show where the conductor wears a captain's hat? That's de-lovely, as Porter would say. And that says it all. Anything Goes continues through October 19 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at www.thehobbycenter.org or call 713-315-2525. $30-$95.